Posts Tagged ‘sociology’


The neighborhood you grow up in matters. A great deal. Especially in a highly unequal society like the United States.

Just consider the chart above [ht: ja]. It shows that poor kids (at or below the 25th percentile) who grow up in Baltimore City county—where Freddie Gray was killed—will make, on average, nearly $3,500 less than the national average.

Cook-25 Cook-99

The same is true across the country, including Cook County, Illinois. There (as shown in the chart on the left), a child in a poor family would make $3480—or 13 percent—less at age 26 compared to poor families nationwide (and they’d be much better off if they were raised in DuPage county). By the same token (according to the chart on the right), if a child in the top 1 percent were to grow up in that same county, they would make $1290 more at age 26 compared with children in families in the top 1 percent elsewhere in the country (but they’d do even better in Kankakee county).

That’s what we’ve learned from the new study by Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren. Neighborhood matters. A great deal. Especially in a highly unequal society like the United States.



But, in all honesty, we’ve known that neighborhood matters for a long time. Since at least 1901-02, when Charles J. Bushnell published his pioneering study of the Stock Yards neighborhood in the American Journal of Sociology (as if to confirm Justin Wolfers’s observation that “sociologists have typically been quicker than economists to embrace the idea that neighborhoods are important”). Which, remember, was the same neighborhood (referred to as Back of the Yards) Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle.

Bushnell’s analysis was particularly compelling because he compared two neighborhoods that butted up against one another on the south side of Chicago: Back of the Yards and Hyde Park (where the University of Chicago is located). What he showed, for example, is that in 1897, 70 per cent of the families in economic distress were found in 27 per cent of the territory, while in 1900 92.5 per cent of the distress was found in 27 per cent of the territory—and that the territory referred to was located wholly within the Stock Yard district. The difference between the two neighborhoods could not have been more stark.

But, Bushnell also observed,

it is significant to note the fact, indicative of the vaguely apprehended and poorly organized conditions of life in our large cities, that the very community which is thus helping to support the agency which is trying to rescue the people of the Stock Yard district from the effects of their bad sanitary and economic conditions, is at the same time, perhaps without recognizing the fault, sending its garbage over into the Stock Yard district to make its sanitary and economic conditions worse.

It is not just that conditions and outcomes were different in the two neighborhoods; the poor conditions in the Stock Yard district were caused, at least in part, by the fact that the residents of Hyde Park were using the Stock Yard district as their dumping ground.

And that’s the lesson we learned then but seem to have forgotten now: not only that neighborhood matters, but also that—”perhaps without recognizing the fault”—we continue to create and treat our poorest neighborhoods as both a source of enormous wealth and a dumping ground for the detritus of the tiny minority who manage to live elsewhere.

In other words, the solution to the slim prospects of children in poor neighborhoods is not to somehow encourage their families to move into better neighborhoods. What we have to do, as a society, is eliminate the very fact that neighborhood matters—in Baltimore, Chicago, and elsewhere—by transforming the economy that creates such unequal neighborhoods in the first place.


Justin Wolfers has assembled some serious information. But, in my view, he has offered a less-than-serious explanation of that information.

The information is pretty straightforward: references to economists in the New York Times have grown over time and far outnumber mentions of members of other academic disciplines, including historians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and demographers. (The same is true, as it turns out, of the number of mentions in the Congressional Record.)

I have no reason to dispute the numbers. And they make sense to me—from my own reading of the Times over many decades and the fact that, “if you are running a government agency, a think tank, a media outlet or a major corporation, and don’t have your own pet economist on the payroll, you’re the exception” (to which I would only add, major university).

Wolfers’s explanation is, however, much less serious:

This economist is drawn to conclude that if our relative success is not due to supply, then it must be demand, which means that our popularity reflects the discerning tastes of our audience in the marketplace of ideas.

What I think we need to grapple with is the economizing tendency of bourgeois society. What I mean by that is the idea that, within contemporary society, all major individual and social questions are increasingly subject to an economic logic. Should I stay in school? What kind of job should I look for? How do we organize our households? Can we eliminate poverty? Should we lower the retirement age and expand Social Security benefits? And so on and so forth.

Given the way our society is currently organized, the answers to those questions are generally viewed through an economic lens and couched in an economic language. It’s a lens and language (borrowed mostly from mainstream economics) of incentives, tradeoffs, scarcity, costs and benefits, equilibrium, and so on. It’s a discourse according to which a system based on individual decisions, private property, and markets is considered sacrosanct. And it’s a project that seeks to economize—to subject to an economic calculation—all major individual and social issues.

If that’s true, is it any wonder that economists find themselves at the top of the heap?


Gary Becker’s recent death has provoked widespread praise (for example, from Peter Lewin through Justin Wolfers to Amita Etzioni) for his role in initially creating and then extending “economics imperialism.”

The basic idea (as presented on Wikipedia, by Edward P. Lazear [pdf], and in this interview with Becker himself) is that economics imperialism refers to an “economic analysis of seemingly non-economic aspects of life,” such as crime, law, the family, racial discrimination, tastes, religion, and war.*

Actually, that’s wrong. Economics imperialism is not the economic analysis of supposedly noneconomic behaviors and institutions; it’s the extension of neoclassical economics to those domains. Economics imperialism is, in this sense, the highest stage of neoclassical economics.

There are lots of different ways of making sense of the economic dimensions of our individual and social lives. What Becker and his followers set out to do was to analyze various aspects of individual decisionmaking and social institutions through the lens of neoclassical theory. This has meant reducing those decisions and institutions to individual, rational, self-interested calculations of costs and benefits, under conditions of scarcity, such as to arrive at efficient, equilibrium solutions.

The imperialist extension of neoclassical theory to supposedly noneconomic phenomena was predicated on the formation of a neoclassical monopoly within the discipline of economics. Once that monopoly over teaching, research, publications, and funding was achieved within the traditional domain of the discipline in the postwar period, it became possible to branch out and colonize the rest of the space of social theory. (I should note that the monopoly of neoclassical theory within the discipline was never complete, and has been contested throughout the postwar period.) That’s what economics imperialism was all about: to attempt to create a theoretical monopoly across the social sciences by exporting the methods of neoclassical economics to other domains. This is what made it different from the previous period, when it was the conclusions of neoclassical economics that were exported to other disciplines; now, it was the method that was being exported.

The result, of course, was not to unify social theory across the disciplines but to create new divisions within the disciplines. It’s no longer a battle between, say, economists and sociologists but, instead, between neoclassical economists and sociologists, on one hand, and non-neoclassical economists and sociologists, on the other. Much the same is true in political science, anthropology, psychology, and so on. And it’s not just a battle over the use of some of the key concepts and tools closely identified with neoclassical economics (such as mathematical modeling, rational choice, equilibrium, and so on) but over the actual entry points of social analysis. Because, in the end, that’s what Becker’s neoclassical analysis privileges: the reduction of the social space to the decisions and actions of individual subjects.

The real challenge to economics imperialism—inside and outside the discipline of economics—is, as Louis Althusser put it, the idea of a process without a subject.


*What I didn’t remember, or perhaps never knew, is that Becker understood his work to be a critique of and an alternative to Marxism (or at least what he took to be Marxism). It’s right there at the beginning of his Nobel lecture [pdf] and the interview with Religion and Liberty:

R&L: You are sometimes called an “economic imperialist.” What is meant by this?

Becker: That refers to my belief that economic analysis can be applied to many problems in social life, not just those conventionally called “economic.” The theme of my Nobel lecture, based on my life’s work, is that the horizons of economics need to be expanded. Economists can talk not only about the demand for cars, but also about matters such as the family, discrimination, and religion, and about prejudice, guilt, and love. Yet these areas have traditionally received little attention in economics. In that sense, it’s true: I am an economic imperialist. I believe good techniques have a wide application. Adam Smith and many others believed that as well.

On the other hand, my economic imperialism doesn’t have anything to do with crude materialism or the view that material status is the sum total of a person’s value. That view has much more in common with Marxist analysis.


It should come as no surprise that, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education [paywall], students on college campuses are struggling over the issue of class.

The situation is particularly difficult for first-generation college students (as I was back in the day), who are cast as subjects of “socioeconomic diversity” within institutions of higher education that are increasingly targeting the sons and daughters of the wealthy in order to increase revenues and move up in the rankings.

The class problem in relation to higher education, of course, is an old one, as Thorstein Veblen discussed in the Theory of the Leisure Class:

Ritualistic survivals and reversions come out in fullest vigor and with the freest air of spontaneity among those seminaries of learning which have to do primarily with the education of the priestly and leisure classes. Accordingly it should appear, and it does pretty plainly appear, on a survey of recent developments in college and university life, that wherever schools founded for the instruction of the lower classes in the immediately useful branches of knowledge grow into institutions of the higher learning, the growth of ritualistic ceremonial and paraphernalia and of elaborate scholastic “functions” goes hand in hand with the transition of the schools in question from the field of homely practicality into the higher, classical sphere. The initial purpose of these schools, and the work with which they have chiefly had to do at the earlier of these two stages of their evolution, has been that of fitting the young of the industrious classes for work. On the higher, classical plane of learning to which they commonly tend, their dominant aim becomes the preparation of the youth of the priestly and the leisure classes—or of an incipient leisure class—for the consumption of goods, material and immaterial, according to a conventionally accepted, reputable scope and method. This happy issue has commonly been the fate of schools founded by “friends of the people” for the aid of struggling young men, and where this transition is made in good form there is commonly, if not invariably, a coincident change to a more ritualistic life in the schools.

And, of course, it’s become much sharper in recent years, with growing inequality in the wider society and soaring debt for those students who are trying to follow the American Dream.

While I’m certainly not against the “dialogues” featured in the Chronicle article, what students in fact need is a clear and rigorous discussion of how class works—in the economy and in the wider society. They need academic courses—in economics and sociology but also in literature and the sciences—that explicitly treat the issue of class, which given students the concepts and methods to understand how class works and how it shapes their lives, before, during, and after their studies.

Otherwise, all we’re doing is participating in the “growth of ritualistic ceremonial and paraphernalia and of elaborate scholastic ‘functions'” and watching students struggle, outside the classroom, with the issue of class.

What would happen if the concept of exploitation became the entry point into our analyses of poverty?

According to Thomas B. Edsall, Matthew Desmond, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard, asked exactly that question at a recent symposium on inequality at Yale:

If exploitation long has helped to create the slum and its inhabitants, if it long has been a clear, direct, and systematic, cause of poverty and social suffering, why, then, has this ugly word — exploitation — been erased from current theories of urban poverty?

who could argue that the urban poor today are not just as exploited as they were in generations past, what with the acceleration of rents throughout the housing crisis; the proliferation of pawn shops, the number of which doubled in the 1990s; the emergence of the payday lending industry, boasting of more stores across the U.S. than McDonald’s restaurants and netting upwards of $7 billion annually in fees; and the colossal expansion of the subprime lending industry, which was generating upwards of $100 billion in annual revenues at the peak of the housing bubble? And yet conventional accounts of inequality, structural and cultural approaches alike, continue to view urban poverty strictly as the result of some inanity. How different our theories would be — and with them our policy prescriptions — if we began viewing poverty as the result of a kind of robbery.

And Edsall himself poses a related, and perhaps even more significant, question:

How different would the nation’s politics be if either party, or at least the Democrats, added the concept of economic exploitation to its repertoire?

How should we treat enduring legacies?

Some legacies, like the culture of poverty approach, notwithstanding Daniel Little’s defense of current sociological research, need to be undone. Stephen Steinberg, in my view, still gets it right:

Enter the sociologist, to record the agony of the dispossessed. Does it really matter how they define a “good job” when they have virtually no prospect of finding one?

Then, there’s the legacy of Appalachia—of mountains, communities, and workers’ battles against the mining companies—which is being undone by current mining operations and, now, a federal judge’s ruling on behalf of the Mingo Logan Coal Co. to continue to operate its Spruce No. 1 mine.

“This town was already pretty much destroyed [by mountaintop removal mining] in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” Nida said in a telephone interview. “It went from about 700 people to 60 or 70 now. This will just finish it.”

Blair is of particular significance because of its proximity to Blair Mountain, where in 1921 some 15,000 striking coal miners fought a violent battle with police and coal company-backed strikebreakers. Dozens died, and federal troops had to be called in.

Finally, there’s the legacy bequeathed to us by the unemployment suffered by millions of workers.

People who lose jobs, even if they eventually find new ones, suffer lasting damage to their earnings potential, their health and the prospects of their children. And the longer it takes to find a new job, the deeper the damage appears to be.

Not since the Great Depression have so many Americans been unable to find work for so long. But researchers have turned to the next-worst period, the early 1980s, to seek a better understanding of the likely damage.

A 2009 study, to cite one recent example, found that workers who lost jobs during the recession of the early 1980s were making 20 percent less than their peers two decades later. The study focused on mass layoffs to limit the possibility that the results reflected the selective firings of inferior workers.

Losing a job also is literally bad for your health. A 2009 study found life expectancy was reduced for Pennsylvania workers who lost jobs during that same period. A worker laid off at age 40 could expect to die at least a year sooner than his peers.

And a particularly depressing paper, published in 2008, reported that children also suffer permanent damage when parents lose jobs. The study followed the earnings of 39,000 Canadian fathers and sons over 30 years beginning in the late 1970s. The study found the sons of men who lost their jobs eventually earned about 9 percent less than the sons of otherwise comparable workers.

In order to undo that legacy, we would need to move beyond the culture of poverty, and to have better decisions by federal judges, and to understand that a system that produces massive, long-term unemployment—as well as staggering racial disparities and the ongoing destruction of Appalachian mountains and communities—needs to be replaced.